Challenging the News Establishment

You see far more jackets and ties than tie-dyed T-shirts and Birkenstocks on the University of California’s Berkeley campus nowadays. But last month’s Disrupting the News Industry panel at the university’s graduate school of journalism had a title befitting the campus’ radical past and its Free Speech Movement.

A question before the panel was whether a group of people could band together and use inexpensive software to compete directly against established newspapers, magazines, radio or TV stations, or other traditional media outlets.

In the mid-1960s, when the Free Speech Movement drew national attention by disrupting the Berkeley campus, the idea of a group of people using inexpensive tools to compete directly against traditional print or broadcast media was ridiculous.

With the exception of magazine publishers, publishers or broadcasters back then would have said entry barriers were too high for new competition. Assembling a staff and purchasing typesetting equipment, a press, and delivery trucks, or a transmitter and broadcast license, were too expensive. Only wealthy new competitors had a chance to succeed.

That’s held true for almost 50 years. Not anymore.

Most traditional publishers and broadcasters still believe these entry barriers prevent new competition. They don’t realize a steady flow of new media technologies over the past 10 years eroded many of those barriers.

Although the cost and hassle of obtaining an AM, FM, or TV broadcast license is still considerable, new technologies and the cost of reporters’ and editors’ salaries are largely unchanged. New technologies have greatly reduced broadcast and publishing equipment costs.

Broadcasters and publishers can use inexpensive (even open source), off-the-shelf groupware, instant messaging, VOIP telephony, content management software, blogware, and collaborative publishing or broadcasting software. A team must no longer operate out of brick-and-mortar offices hardwired with expensive, proprietary front-end and typesetting hardware. Equipping a content team costs one-quarter to one-third less than what it did five years ago. Even the equipment costs of producing short runs of unbound print editions (for a weekly or small daily newspaper) have markedly declined in the past few years.

As with the adage about saving money by buying in volume, people know this in theory. The difference now is writers and editors, individually or in groups, use these inexpensive production technologies to compete directly with established, traditional publishers and broadcasters:

  • Rafat Ali’s PaidContent.org (which I’ve written about before) consists of a professional reporter who uses blogware to publish daily coverage of the online news and information business. His two-year-old site has won major news industry awards and gets more traffic than those of Editor & Publisher and MediaWeek (both operated by trade magazine giant VNU) combined.

  • DPReview.com is published by Phil and Joanna Askey. Thanks to their objective and authoritative reviews of digital cameras, the site routinely attracts more traffic than those of most traditional photo equipment magazines.
  • Transom is a small team site that provides technical and conceptual guidance about how to create original radio productions. This year, it won a Peabody Award, the broadcast equivalent of print news’ Pulitzer Prize.
  • VillageSoup is a community news site for Camden, Maine. A few years ago, a group of people, some with publishing experience and some without, thought the local weekly newspaper (published by a national chain) and distant (30 miles) daily newspapers didn’t cover their community well. So they got together via these new technologies to cover their community themselves. The site is so successful that, over a year ago, the team also began publishing and distributing a weekly print edition. VillageSoup is now the established news media in town.

Are any of these efforts making a profit? PaidContent.org, DPReview.com, and VillageSoup are. Transom, a not-for-profit, is covering its costs.

Traditional publishers and broadcasters should worry about these efforts. Entry barriers will continue to fall as new media technology evolves. New competition will further decrease the market price consumers will pay for content.

Update

Last year I wrote a two-part column about the prospects for paid-content blogging. During the BloggerCon conference last month, attendees created a useful wiki list of ideas how to make money blogging.

Related reading

prog
hillary-clinton-text-message-signup
screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-10-20-04
mike-andrews
<